Elisabeth S. Clemens, William Rainey Harper Professor of Sociology and the College University of Chicago
As both nation and state, the United States is a puzzle. How did a sense of shared nationhood develop despite the linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences among its settlers? How did a global power emerge from an often anti-statist political culture? One answer to these questions can be found in the unexpected political uses of voluntarism and benevolence, in the power of gifts to create ties among strangers and to mobilize communities. From the early Republic through the Second World War – with many natural disasters, economic crises, and municipal projects in between – civic benevolence elicited the commitments and the capacities needed to meet public challenges. This “expansible state” could be contained whenever citizens withdrew their participation in the co-production of public goods or displaced when expectations of the equality of independent democratic citizens were offended by the social etiquette of benevolence. The legacy of this combinatorial politics is a system of government that is profoundly infrastructural and dependent on partnerships with private actors if no longer on processes of civic mobilization and giving.
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